The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) 2016 results were released by Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Tuesday. To say that they are anything but devastating would be a lie. About 78% of Grade 4 pupils cannot read — that’s eight out of every 10 children of that age in the country — not in English, not in their home language, not in any language. Among Setswana and Sepedi home-language pupils the figure is more than 90%. After four years of full-time schooling, most pupils cannot understand what they read, if they can decode the words at all. Simple questions, workbook exercises, even the most basic storybook — these are meaningless to them. And unless children are taught how to read, the country has failed them before they’ve even started. The report’s five most important findings are: Eight of 10 Grade 4 children cannot read for meaning. That is to say that they could not reach the lowest international Pirls benchmark in reading. They could not locat...

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